Millions of refugees are fleeing violence and massacre. The scale of the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and beyond is almost unprecedented. About four million Syrians have fled a vicious civil war and are seeking shelter. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who have been facing danger in Libya, have added to the refugee exodus.

In the Mediterranean, with the sea flat calm, thousands of migrants have mark­ed the start of the annual sailing season by taking to flotillas of unseaworthy boats heading for the coast of Europe from Libya. Some 700 are feared death after their boat capsized on Saturday night. Last Tuesday, 400 migrants perished and 41 on Thursday in similar circumstances.

This year’s immigration numbers could well outstrip previous records. Last year, 170,000 crossed the Mediterranean to start a new life in Europe. Most left Italy and headed for stronger economies further north. Continual bloodshed in Syria, Islamic terror, lawlessness in Libya, poverty and oppressive governments in Africa will keep the boats coming.

Still, the EU dithers. Although the increasing magnitude of immigration is new, the problem itself has faced the EU for well over a decade. Efforts at solutions have been marked mostly by empty words of faux-compassion in the face of the horrifying deaths in Europe’s own waters and have led to weak and politically unworkable plans.

Another major catastrophe, like this weekend’s, may focus minds in Europe, not least in Rome, which cancelled its naval rescue operation (Mare Nostrum) last year to placate right-wing voters.

The buck was passed to the European Commission, which launched its much-reduced Operation Triton under Frontex, which depends for its manpower and equipment on donations from member states. Initially welcomed as a possible solution to the problem, Frontex is simply not up to the task unless EU states can commit to supporting it with greater manpower, naval and air assets.

Migration is a complex humanitarian and political issue. The debate about it is characterised by very strongly held political positions, based on weak evidence and poor analysis. The tendency for politicians to think with their guts, not with their heads, has produced polarised ideological positions that are unhealthy and have led to poor policy development.

Domestic politics in European member states has trumped humanitarian considerations. The result has been paralysis in Brussels and throughout European capitals while hundreds die.

An EU policy on immigration is expected in May. The fear is that it will lack real tools to deal firmly with the issues. Equitable sharing of responsibility between member states should be a central pillar of migration policy but the issue is likely to be ducked.

A holistic approach to the problem, including how to deal with armed human traffickers and people smugglers and the development of a strategy of cooperation with sub-Saharan and North African nations, is needed.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was elected with a reputation for knocking heads together and making deals. He should temporarily switch his focus away from a possible Greek exit from the euro and events in Ukraine – important though they are – to the humanitarian disaster erupting on Europe’s southern borders and the social consequences for all Europe of ever-accelerating uncontrolled immigration.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has called for an urgent meeting of EU leaders to discuss migration following Saturday night’s tragedy. Indeed, an EU summit focused solely on a strategic action plan for migration and refugees could not happen soon enough.

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